Working on a Dream
Hope is all over Bruce Springsteen's 16th album. It's there in the title, Working on a Dream, and it's in the songs - odes to love, life and the Great Beyond. Of course, hope has always been at the center of Springsteen's songs, even when they seemed hopeless. Most of Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River are about despair and wanting to get the hell out of desperate situations. It's hope that keeps Bruce, Mary, Wendy and everyone else going. Working on a Dream, recorded with the E Street Band, doesn't shroud its hope in songs about luckless losers and road-bound tramps; it's the focal point on "My Lucky Day," "What Love Can Do," "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Life Itself." The album even starts with a shot of old-school optimism, "Outlaw Pete," an eight-minute epic about one of Springsteen's urban cowboys. But unlike the guys in "Jungleland" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town," Pete actually makes it out OK in the end. And unlike Springsteen's last album, 2007's overrated Magic, Working on a Dream isn't hiding a political agenda. Sure, the title tune's hope might as well be Obama's, but this is a record of celebrations - little victories about stargazing and falling in love in the checkout line of the supermarket. - Michael Gallucci
Kind of Blue - 50th Anniversary
There are a few virtually undisputed seminal rock 'n' roll albums, records some fans may not even like, yet their cultural impact can't be shrugged off - the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Ramones' first two albums and Velvet Underground & Nico, to name a few. Jazz has Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz and John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. But there's one that surpasses even those - at quadruple-platinum numbers. Miles Davis' Kind of Blue is the biggest-selling album in jazz history. Before Blue, most jazz improvisation was based on chord changes. Not to go all Dr. Technical on you, but Miles and company used scales as springboards for elegant solo flights. The result is sparse, moody, poignant and timeless music, sounding as super-fine today as when it was originally issued in 1959, a perfect example of saying lots via restraint. The essence, though not the style, of the blues permeates much of the soloing, especially Miles' trumpet, Bill Evans' incredibly lyrical and tantalizingly spare piano, and Cannonball Adderley's blustery alto sax. Drummer Jimmy Cobb and bassist Paul Chambers ensure straightforward but subtle swing. For fanatics, the two-disc Legacy Edition includes a couple of alternate versions and a few abortive intros, but the real icing on the cake is a live 17-minute version of "So What." - Mark Keresman
Andrew Bird, former collaborator with Squirrel Nut Zippers and frontman of Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire, is inarguably multi-talented. As a solo artist, he pens clever lyrics that don't trip over their own intelligence, immerses his songs with a sort of emotional depth and resonance that happily avoids sentimentality or melodrama, and uses words like "tenuousness" and "nomenclature" as song titles without seeming pretentious. Bird plays a variety of instruments on his follow-up to 2007's beloved Armchair Apocrypha. His masterful violin playing is particularly noticeable, especially on the soft, compelling "Effigy." On the single "Oh No," he combines quietly picked acoustic guitar, delicate beats and his signature skillful whistling to create a lush soundscape for his literary lyrics. Even considering his strong track record, this may be Bird's best work. - Emily Zemler
Nous Non Plus
Nothing about Nous Non Plus is real. They're from New York, but they play the part of chic Euro hipsters. Their songs are in French, even though only one of the six members speaks it. And we're pretty sure Céline Dijon isn't the singer's real name. In fact, co-founder and producer Dan Crane is better known for his fakery as air-guitar champion Bjšrn TŸroque. The band's second album, Menagerie, occasionally offers some genuine pop music - especially opener "Loli," a garage-rocker straight outta the '60s, and "French Teacher," which pulsates with disco throbs and falsetto swoops. But too often Nous Non Plus' smug, winking attitude toward the various genres they attempt - bubbly shag-jazz, bachelor-pad lounge, psychedelic carnival pop - comes off as artificial as their monikers. It's like Stereolab without the chops. Or the legitimacy. - Gallucci
Afro Samurai Resurrection: The Soundtrack
The closest thing Wu-Tang Clan (as a group or as solo artists) has had to consistency over the years is the RZA's production. From the group's debut - with its dusty beats, kung-fu samples and existential woe - to the cinematic minimalism of the Kill Bill soundtrack, RZA has proved himself to be an avid and talented composer. Maybe that's why Afro Samurai Resurrection: The Soundtrack, despite some weak verses, makes for an engrossing listen. RZA's production work is varied and intricate. He manages speaker-rattling, Gorillaz-echoing party jams ("Combat"), shiny, puncturing funk ("Blood Thicker Than Mud Family Affair'") and downtempo lounge ("Girl Samurai Lullaby"), among other tones. Some killer guest appearances, like Ghostface's bars on the Wu-sounding "Whar" or Boy Jones' bizarre Humpty-Hump-meets-ODB delivery on "Nappy Afro," also add to this album's appeal. Yeah, there are a couple flubs, like the rap-metal cadence of "Dead Birds" and the 10-minute-plus "Take the Sword Part III." But otherwise this is a prime example of a hip-hop producer working at the top of his game. - Matt Whelihan
On Of Cities, Brooklyn producer DJ Signify continues the cinematic cut-and-paste wizardry he does best. Whether he's flying solo, working with the legendary 1200 Hobos crew or providing beats for artists like Buck 65 and Sage Francis, Signify has been an unstoppable force since 1998. Of Cities' soundscapes are often sparse and minimalist, but when the drums hit, you'll be nodding your head. In the vein of Anticon artists like Alias and Odd Nosdam, Signify is skilled at conveying his moods and emotions without ever saying a word. He does enlist the help of Aesop Rock on "Low Tide" and "Sink or Swim," and the rapper's skilled wordplay complements Signify's beats, while also helping to break up the monotony. On the dark but funky "1993," he teams up with fellow New York producer Blockhead for one of the album's finest moments - the two combine their singular styles seamlessly. "Hold Me Don't Touch Me" is also a highlight, with jittery drums, throbbing bass and somewhat creepy vibe. Of Cities is a gorgeous effort that builds on Signify's already accomplished musical legacy. - Eddie Fleisher
Six Organs of Admittance
RTZ is named after the "return to zero" button on the four-track recorder Six Organs of Admittance main man Ben Chasny used to record all of the tracks on this double-disc collection. The idea of returning to zero is also apparently what Chasny has decided to do with the latest Six Organs release. This set consists of five pieces - the newest of which is more than five years old. Nearly all the material has already been issued in some (rare) form or another. The only unreleased track, "Punish the Chasms with Wings," features 19 minutes of rambling, face-melting, raga-inflected psychedelia. It's the kind of sound that dominated Chasny's earlier work but which he seemingly started to leave behind. Recent projects - particularly 2005's School of the Flower - are more in the dark-folk realm. Early wild psychedelic experiments gave way to more traditional song structures. And while 18 minutes' worth of repeated melody can certainly be hypnotic - see the first movement of "Nightly Trembling" - it can also get boring when there isn't much melodic variation. There's a rough-around-the-edges quality that makes these tracks endearing in an era of Pro Tools perfection, but that's not enough to overcome the fact that RTZ feels like a rote odds-and-sods collection. It's a nice bookend for fans of Chasny's early work, but it does little to further the band's legend. - Jeremy Willets
The Ultimate Peter Tosh Experience
After Bob Marley, no other reggae artist had as much impact as a singer, songwriter and cultural/political figurehead as Peter Tosh. Both were original Wailers and, sadly, both have passed away (Tosh was murdered in 1987. )It's difficult to encapsulate someone of Tosh's stature in one package, but The Ultimate Peter Tosh Experience comes close. Consisting of two DVDs and one CD, Ultimate provides a survey of Tosh, from live footage - including 1981's No Nukes concert where he was the sole reggae performer and his final performance in Kingston, Jamaica in 1983 - to the documentary Stepping Razor: Red X to a cross-section of songs, his most popular ("Get Up Stand Up," "Legalize It") and some unreleased ("Watcha Gonna Do," with Eric Clapton). But his legend is based on songs, and rightly so - Tosh's style was profound roots-reggae with some judicious rock influences woven in. "Rastafari Is" features a stinging, borderline-psychedelic guitar line underscoring his fervor. "Fools Die" is a sparse, eerily haunting ballad (featuring flute and no reggae rhythm!) with gospel overtones that shimmer like a mirage. The quietly rousing "Jah Guide" is just voice and acoustic guitar, evoking American folk and blues singers Richie Havens and Taj Mahal, with lyrics suggesting Tosh knew Destiny had something nasty in store for him. Not for the novice, but for reggae devotees in general and Tosh fans in particular, Ultimate is a treasure trove. - Keresman
Why should you spend money on a new Cannibal Corpse album, 11 studio full-lengths into their reign as the kings of classic Florida-style death metal? You know the song titles are gonna be awesome ("Beheading and Burning," "Skewered From Ear to Eye," "Evidence in the Furnace"), you know the drumming will be relentless and the guitars downtuned and excoriating, and George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher will be roaring and shrieking atop it all. But do you really need a fresh dose? Yeah, you do. The members of Cannibal Corpse are impeccable craftsmen, writing structurally perfect death-metal songs like Shakers making austere, beautiful wooden furniture. "Scalding Hail" is a relentless 1:46 of headbanging madness; "A Cauldron of Hate" churns like a cement mixer; the guitars on "Carnivorous Swarm" buzz like the insects the lyrics describe; and the title track is almost … catchy. Cannibal Corpse are the masters of their chosen idiom. Bow down. - Phil Freeman
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